Sunday, November 01, 2009

The frowning piccoloist

Dear Jen,
I've actually never seen anyone play with a smile embouchure before...very curious. It is something I'll watch out for in future students though. However, I was wondering what your take on playing with a pretty severe frown was. I saw a great piccoloist for a professional orchestra play like this and it must work for her, but I'm wondering how good of a thing it is to do in general? It seems like extra muscle work whenever piccolo can be taxing enough as it is. C.

Dear C.,
I don't know for sure how severe a frown must be for it to be "too much".
If a player has a protruding lower tooth, or a very individual jaw alignment, an unusually short distance between nose and upper lip, one lip thicker than the other, or a receding chin or buck teeth, virtually anything is possible.:>)

Perhaps the flutist with the severe frown is accidentally over-working their face muscles in an attempt to control the lip aperture; in which case the face and embouchure will tire more easily over several hours of playing; but on the other hand, maybe they MUST create this particular "face" in order to get their lips to form the best embouchure for tone.

Everyone is very different. There are so many variables among faces, lips and embouchures. Even the length of the teeth, cheeks and openness of the jaw hinge would create additional variables.

If a flutist had a very thick upper lip, frowning might help pull the embouchure into better balance, who knows? If you place your finger on the center of the upper lip, and then on the center of the lower lip, you fill find out for yourself how facial muscles affect the lip opening.

If you are teaching a flutist with too much facial tension, in the future, I would suggest working with the embouchure experiments of Roger Mather in volume two of "The Art of Playing the flute" which is entitled EMBOUCHURE.

You can also look at a variety of photos of flute embouchures online. Do you see any that are close to what you're describing with the "frowning piccoloist"?

You can also watch the "frown" muscles at work in this embouchure exercise advocated by James Galway:

An older flute teaching "how to manual" by Charles Delaney shows the muscle use of the face, and indicates that the muscles directly around the lips are the most useful, but this information may be out of date.

Delaney has a list of muscle-use conditions, but everyone has to figure out how to balance each muscle group. Here is what Delaney writes on the topic (click on jpeg to enlarge it).

Using an online face-and-emotion illustration (the movement demos don't work on my computer for some reason) you may be able to make your own understanding of the face muscles more clear:

Here is the frown muscle; it pulls the corners of the lips down but does little to help the lip aperture in the very center of the lips. However, maybe it helps stretch the upper lip downward in some players:

Here is the orbicularis obis muscle tissue that surrounds the lips. If you frown, and pull down the triangularis, you may affect these pursing and shaping muscles, but it is simpler and more direct to use the orbicularis obis muscles that are closest to the lips. The orbis alone can allow fine control of the lip aperture, especially in more advanced players:

And finally, although I'm no expert in these matters, here are the smile muscles, which as many of us have discovered, pull the lips away from the embouchure hole of the flute, which can be a very typical problem in student beginners who are told to smile to play the flute:

Hope this helps.

In general I don't know if we can simply look at a face and decide that the embouchure is too much, unless we are working one on one with a student, looking for tell-tale signs that they are overworking their muscles unecessarily.

After all, there are a zillion face types, muscle usages, dental formations and embouchure attempts, as well as the question of quality of tone.
If a player plays with good tone, in tune, and doesn't tire easily, then their embouchure is right for them, I guess.
Comments (9)
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been working on my embouchure lately because my teacher has mention seeing a lot of tension in my lips. I find it very interesting to see how different everyone's mouth is when they play. Two of my classmates' mouths appear to not change at all between resting and playing flute, and there appears to be no tension. However, another classmate of mine looks to have a lot of tension in his mouth and makes a lot of movements with his lips. All three have great tones and no one's sound seems compromised by what they're doing.

I guess everyone just needs to do what works for them whatever that might be.

Thanks for another great and informative post!

Monday, November 02, 2009 10:20:00 AM

Blogger jen said...

Thanks for your comment.
I've found that in the end it's easier not to have to make lots of movement with the embouchure anywhere but at the very center of the lip aperture.
For fast playing and wide intervals this is a valuable tip.
Thanks again. Most interesting.

Monday, November 02, 2009 4:43:00 PM

Blogger Jennifer Mulvihill said...

Hi Jen!

I also am a flutist (named Jen) and love your blog! Prior to opening my studio I was a band director, but now I am currently teaching about 20 flute students in Rochester, MN.

Other than music-making, my interests lie in the realm of both graphic and fashion design. I recently developed a flute polishing cloth that mixes the function of a microfiber cloth with the beauty and color of designer fabrics.

I was wondering if you would be willing to look at my polishing cloths, try one out and potentially hold a give-away to your readers? I would be glad to mail one, or a few, to you free of charge!

My website is:
Thanks for your time!

Jen Mulvihill

Wednesday, November 04, 2009 1:54:00 PM

Blogger jen said...

Hi other Jen,
The beautiful cleaning cloths look great!! Nice price too. I'll just let folk find them from your nice link, if that's okay. Best, Jen

Thursday, November 05, 2009 6:36:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is something that I have often wondered about and have done a lot of experimenting with. I've come to the same conclusion. The rule of thumb seems to be (as with everything else) that flutists should just do whatever works best . . . regardless of how funny it may look. I know that my embouchure is rather crooked and that I look less attractive than I would like while playing. I guess the appearance of one's embouchure isn't as important as the sound the flutist is producing. Great post!

Friday, November 06, 2009 5:20:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting those diagrams of the anatomy of the face. I had never thought about incorporating my knowledge of the anatomy and physiology of the head and face into my study of the flute. I think that a basic understanding of these muscles could do a lot of young students a world of good. Very interesting!

Friday, November 06, 2009 5:26:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for making this post! It was so insightful! I really appreciated you including all of those photos and diagrams because now I truly have an understanding of the muscles that surround my embouchure.

Sunday, November 08, 2009 5:52:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

2 of my students came to me specifically to work on their tone. I am going to print out this blog post and give it to them. Thanks for referencing all those great sources!

Sunday, November 08, 2009 9:20:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for responding with another fabulous and very informative post Jen! I really appreciate it and I think I'm starting to get the hang of this blogging stuff! :)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009 4:44:00 PM


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